Saturday, February 25, 2017

Out of The Ditch: The Mindful Perspective of Neil Young's Zuma

[This piece is part of an ongoing series about mindfulness in music.  I initially intended for this to be a ten-album list, but quickly found the subject to be too broad while simultaneously too restrictive.  Mindfulness is an intrinsic aspect of consciousness, and while indirect references to it are everywhere, it rarely serves as a primary topic.  Furthermore, the experience of music is a mindful activity in and of itself...leading to the infamous meditator's paradox of "thinking about thinking".  In the spirit of circumventing that rabbit hole,   I chose to focus on one album at a time, and more closely examine any mindful aspects therein.  Since I've come to mindfully accept that I cannot write anything without it eventually being about Neil Young, I figured that would be a good place to start.]

1972’s Harvest put Neil Young at the top of the world.  The chart-topping record, particularly lead single Heart of Gold, made a mellow, lovelorn incarnation of Neil into a ubiquitous cultural figure.  Its astronomical success and the drug-related deaths of bandmate Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry shortly thereafter provoked Neil into making a now-characteristic musical 180.  In his own words, Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road.  Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch”.  His ensuing albums served as a boozy, drawn-out exorcism of grief and guilt.  Young formed a temporary backing band dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers, and messily confronted his demons on tape.  Perpetually drunk, he became increasingly reclusive and volatile during the recording of Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach.  The albums consist almost entirely of first-take recordings, done using a mobile studio situated outside the drunken benders that were the band’s recording sessions.  We’re not going to polish this up” he told guitarist Nils Lofgren, “we’re going to play passionately, kind of live and record it as we go.  I want people to see it how it is”.  Meanwhile on a disastrous arena tour, audiences expecting the country-folk acoustic troubadour of Harvest were instead thrown into a scattershot electric assault.  The experience is captured in the live album Time Fades Away.  By all accounts, Young spent this tumultuous period seemingly hell-bent on sinking himself as far down as he could go.  Although the resulting output was critically panned at the time, it is now widely appreciated for its recklessness and earnest darkness.  In tune with his own assessment, the three albums have become affectionately known as “The Ditch Trilogy”.  Having endured three years in his own personal hell, by 1975 Neil would reform Crazy Horse with new guitarist Frank Sampedro and emerge from the ditch with Zuma.

Zuma is named after a famous beach in Malibu, where Neil resided during the album’s development.  The sunny surroundings, reincarnation of Crazy Horse, and the presence of free-spirited and enthusiastic Sampedro (nicknamed “Poncho”) gave the album an aura of brightness and rejuvenation.  “Somehow I feel like I’ve surfaced out of some kind of murk”, Neil told Cameron Crowe in a 1975 interview.  This sense of clarity and acceptance features prominently throughout the record.  Even on the imagery-drenched guitar meanderings of Danger Bird and Cortez the Killer, Neil displays a renewed level of focus and momentum.  Like the surfers at Zuma Beach, Young catches the wave of Crazy Horse’s freewheeling garage-rock style.  This concentrated momentum makes for an album that is planted firmly in the here and now, infinitely receptive to the moment.

On the breezy, country-tinged Lookin’ for a Love, Neil envisions himself on a beach that he “walks along sometimes”.  It is there that he meets his hypothetical love, and “never stops to think of any other time”.  The song subverts the expected themes of longing and desire by emphasizing the potential for love, rather than any presence or absence of it.  Instead of dwelling on the imaginary relationship, Neil’s lyrics focus on “the sun hitting the water and the mountains meeting the sand”, and remembering to “live and make the best of what he sees”.  As much as he looks forward to meeting this girl, he doesn’t care how long it takes, and acknowledges that “she’ll be nothing like he pictures her to be”.  It is a feeling of content anticipation, left to be exactly as it is – uninvaded by thought or judgment. 

This mindful stance is also taken regarding the past in Don’t Cry No Tears.  When faced with the thought of old love now unrequited, Neil opts out of jealousy by accepting that it has nothing to do with him anymore, deciding to leave it as is.  True love ain’t too hard to see,” he says, leaving no reason to dwell on it.  As Zuma’s opening track, it may as well represent a personal awakening from the preceding period of darkness.    

This isn’t to say Neil’s got it all figured out.  Pardon My Heart illustrates the futility of a coasting relationship (where one isn’t giving/and one pretends to receive).  In its own way, Stupid Girl laments an inability to absolve the suffering of others.  Neil seems reluctant in pegging the titular character as stupid as she misses opportunities for self-actualization because she can’t “forget about remembering”.  Meanwhile Barstool Blues seems to be a cryptic take on the confusing struggle with thought and consciousness.  Right in the middle of an album where Neil seems to have found contentment, he can’t help but look over his shoulder and wonder if it’s real. 

This confusion and uncertainty comes up directly but briefly in closing track Through My Sails.  No solution or explanation is offered by the sparse lyrics.  Instead the ideas are carried off onto the breeze by easy harmonies and buoyant acoustics.  Love had been an understated recurring theme throughout the album, yet its final mention is simply that “love takes care”.  In that is found serenity, and there doesn’t need to be anything more.

With the dissipation of the post-Harvest darkness, Zuma carries a profound sense of leaning back into the world.  There is still some unease, but it no longer carries any weight.  The positive outlook of taking the present moment at face value overshadows any doubt and discontent.  Zuma is about accepting the wreckage of a dark period, and the decision to move forward from it. 

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